Where is God when I hurt - part two

NOTE:  Here are this week's sermon notes - part four of the "LOVE WINS" series - and a follow-up to last week's hard question:  "Where the Hell Is God in my Pain?" Last week, I offered a spirituality to get grounded in God - a necessary counter-cultural approach - rather than focusing on self. This week I explore some of the wisdom about where is God in the midst of our suffering.  And NEXT week, I'll take it deeper, too.  Join us if you are in town on Sunday, ok?

“Life is full of hard things,” writes Sr. Joan Chittister of the Benedictine Community of Lake Erie. “And when circumstances persist even though I bend every effort to eliminate them, then clearly those are the will of God for me – and there is something in them that I must learn to deal with.”

• These words hold meaning and import for us today as we wrestle with the question I raised last week, “Where the hell is God in the midst of my suffering?”

• For those of you who recall I said that I would give you my answer this week – in part two of my message – and while not everybody was paying attention, that’s what I’m going to try to do this morning: give you my best shot at answering the question of God’s whereabouts in the middle of our pain.

Because the answer, you see, is the fundamental reason why we have a local church. God doesn’t need us to celebrate the Mass – participate in Eucharist – or honor the Sacraments of the Church. And in some cases, the space and resources taken up and often wasted by congregations would be better used by daycare centers for children and adults, feeding facilities for the most wounded among us and homes of hospice for the indigent.
But we have been given a calling – a unique and sacred office – for living in the world. St. Peter – often known as the Rock for both his enthusiasm and thick head – described our calling like this after stumbling through most of his life getting it wrong, betraying Christ and pleading for mercy. He wrote these words towards the end of his ministry:

You've had a taste of God. Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God's pure kindness (so that) you'll grow up mature and whole in God. (You have been called to show the world the wisdom of the Cross) - the living Stone and the source of life – that many have taken one look at and thrown out. But God has set it in the place of honor and invites you to present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life… you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of this priestly work… to be God's instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference God made for you—from nothing into something, from rejected to accepted. I Peter 2: 2-10, The Message, Eugene Peterson

Our calling is NOT to be a burial society for the well-heeled or a social service agency for the poor. We are not a free clinic, a school of psycho-therapy or a vaguely religious club: we are those called to bear witness to the Cross – the stone most of the world still throws away – but which we have discovered is the key to salvation. So, let me suggest three different levels where God meets us in our suffering and shows us through the Cross where the Hell he is even in the midst of our pain.

As prelude, however, I have to ask you to give up your notion of the Lord that you first learned and constructed in childhood. When we are hurting or afraid or grieving, it is almost second nature for us to slip into childish thoughts about God – they are our oldest – and our most time-tested. I know adults – sometimes myself included – who sometimes like to keep the light on at night just like we did when we were small.

But a childish sense of God’s nature doesn’t help us when it comes to the harsh realities of human suffering. God isn’t daddy – or mommy – or some hyper-spiritualized concept of your first pastor, priest, Sunday School teacher or cosmic policeman. So if you are serious about finding the presence of the Lord in midst of your pain, St. Paul asks that we embrace these insights born of his experience:

+ First, he writes in I Corinthians 13: 11-12: When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see as through a glass, darkly; but later I shall see face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

What do you get from this? Why does Paul use these words as the conclusion to the most mature description of Christian love in the Bible?  In another passage of Scripture (Romans 12: 2) he puts it like this: do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Remember what I told you last week? “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking?" To find God in our pain we cannot be looking for daddy – or momma – or even a sacred granny.

The other two Pauline suggestions are equally challenging: Like Sr. Joan, the Apostle Paul believes that after we’ve tried everything else we can to heal, transform or escape our pain, if it still persists then that reality is the will of God:

• Romans 5: 3: By faith… we are able to glory in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance produces character; and character produces hope. And God’s hope does not disappoint us because hope is God’s love being poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

• Why is this insight important to finding God in our suffering? Do you sense how profoundly counter-cultural this is? How much it embodies the paradoxical wisdom of the Cross?

First, Paul’s admonishment to grow up and mature when it comes to thinking about God’s love; second, his challenge to acknowledge reality – pain and all – as the will of God. And third, another truth from the Cross that tells us that even ugly, painful and evil truths can be transformed by the love of God just as Good Friday became Easter.

• Romans 8: “We can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good…I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

• Not that everything is good – we know that it isn’t – there is war and hunger and rape and abuse and stupidity and racism and homophobia and environmental devastation and so much more. NOT everything is good, but… everything can be used for good for those who love God.

• Do you grasp the distinction?
“Life is full of hard things. And when circumstances persist even though I bend every effort to eliminate them, then clearly those are the will of God for me – and there is something in them that I must learn to deal with.” Are you still with me? Any thoughts or clarifications before I go on? Now let’s see if we can go deeper into the hard question of where the hell is God in the midst of my pain? 

• What do you hear when I tell you that in most of the pain of life, God is distant – or silent – or absent? Don’t react too quickly – take a moment to let this simmer – and then see where it leads you.

• And let me amplify just briefly by adding two qualifiers: I believe that most of the world’s pain is caused by sin; and I believe that God has a unique way of responding to human sin.

Think about it: most hunger and starvation is born of greed – most sexual violence is born of lust and a broken need to control and shame – most poverty is born of gluttony, most war is born of hatred and fear. Maybe Gandhi was the most succinct in clarifying the social consequences of sin when he said: Most of the world’s pain comes down to…

Politics without principles - Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience - Knowledge without character
Commerce without morality - Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice

This is on a macro-level, I know – and we’ll get to the intimate agony of our personal pain in just a moment – but we cannot leave this component out of the picture for to do so would be childish. Most of the agony and suffering of the world is caused NOT by God, but human sin.

• Industrial pollution and cancer? The epidemic of violence against women?

• Starvation and homelessness in the wealthiest nation in the world? Malaria and foul water in Africa?

This is all human sin – but here is where I take a sharp left turn from the conclusions offered by most of the rest of my other Reformed brothers and sisters. They have taught – and continue to preach in a manner I find cruel and mean-spirited – saying that the consequence of sin is God’s wrath. Hellfire and brimstone – fear and alienation – suffering and the gnashing of teeth – this is what you get because of sin…?

I know that is conventional wisdom in “churchianity,” but it is all backwards and has NOTHING to do with what Jesus taught or even the insights of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus promised that he would be with us always – in every circumstance – including sin and alienation as well as faith and blessing. So could it be that this cruel, old notion of God’s wrath is really just another childish and hyperbolic holdover that we need to retire? I think a truer and more grace-filled statement of God’s wrath is NOT active punishment for sin, but… absence – distance – silence.

Again we turn to St. Paul in Romans where he tells us that God’s wrath isn’t punishment, but absence – which is a punishment of its own making – but very different, too:

God's angry and broken heart erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate and people try to put a shroud over truth. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see… when we don't treat God like God, refusing to worship him (by caring for one another) we trivialize ourselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in our lives. We pretend to know it all, but are illiterate regarding life. We traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand. So God said, in effect, "If that's what you want, that's what you get." And iIt wasn't long before we were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because we traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god we made instead of the God who made us—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes! (Romans 1, The Message, Eugene Peterson)

That’s why I said that perhaps in MOST of the world’s pain and suffering, God is both absent and silent. Not in punishment or disinterest, mind you, but in love: if this is what you want, you can have it – and we’ll see if you like it.

You want to act like sharing isn’t important – ok, do you like homeless veterans living under your bridges in the land of the free and the home of the brave? You want to believe you can own and use people like tissue – ok, do you like seeing your sons and daughters turned into whores and junkies and their parents addicted to pornography?

You get my point: so what do you think about this part of my answer to the question: where the hell is God in my pain? Does any part of it ring true? Is it helpful? What are you thinking?

Ok, I know this is a long one but there are two other insights to consider about where the hell is God in my pain that adult people of faith have to comprehend – and I will amplify them NEXT week – but need to get them into the mix today. (Did you hear that: I will go deeper into them NEXT week?)

Is there any type of suffering or pain that helps you grow and mature into a compassionate human being?

• Most of the time we talk about God in the context of relieving our pain and eliminating our suffering – and I don’t think that there is anything necessarily redemptive about senseless pain – but let’s go deeper: have you had any encounters with pain that have helped you mature and grow in any way?

• How do you learn about humility? What about acceptance? How does the Serenity Prayer put it? I know I’ve used this a lot, but think about it:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.

Some Christians in the East – St. Irenaeus in particular – have taught that the Western tradition of Augustine and Calvin got it all wrong: God created Adam and Eve in such a way that we learn MORE about sacred living through our mistakes than by childish obedience. The whole point of sin and failure and grace and forgiveness has to do with growing closer to God because of our mistakes; it is how God made us to mature in faith.
Hmmmm… this is another adult truth about sin and suffering that we need to explore more deeply – and WILL when…? Next week, right!

And then there is the pure tragedy of some of our suffering: the senseless death of a baby – random drive-by shootings of innocent loved ones – abuse of any type of a child – the heartbreak we have spoken of together in private and so much more. Where the hell is God in any of THIS pain? The writer, Philip Yancey, once said, that, “Any discussion of how pain and suffering fit into God's scheme ultimately leads back to the cross” – and I think he is right.

• When you consider the Cross not only is their betrayal and absence and suffering, there is also silence and tears, community and compassion, too.

• Suggesting that we cannot make sense of this in isolation – all by ourselves – with only ourselves as a reference point.

We try to do this all the time – we struggle to discern God’s presence from within the middle of our agony – and it always fails us and comes up empty. I’ve seen it over and over with grief or trauma: somebody loses a loved one to death and years later the bereaved is still tied up in knots – a shadow of abundant life – a grim, isolated island unto themselves.

The English theologian, CS Lewis, once described his encounter with the terrible isolation of grief in a personal journals that later became A Grief Observed. He said that when his beloved wife, Joy, died of cancer, at first he felt as if God had slammed a door shut just when he needed the Lord the most. So he screamed and wept, blasphemed and questioned everything he had ever thought, felt or believed; like Job he let himself descend into a barren pit of despair. “Nobody knows what I felt,” he told himself – and as true as this is on one level and as important as it is to do, too – as long as he lived like this was the only truth, emptiness and raw fear defined his existence.

It was only when he started to rest and return to community that his grief was abated – and eventually healed. Not taken away – for such truths are eternal – but other truths are eternal, too. Like the fact that others have lost their dearest loved ones, too and need compassion and a gentle presence in the wake of our pain. Like the fact that Lewis’ own step-son needed a loving and tender father – not a blank shell of man – once his mother had gone to the grave. Like the fact that God, too, had lost his beloved son – that the disciples, too had been reduced to empty despair – that Mary, the mother of our Lord, was perhaps the most bewildered and bereft at the foot of the Cross but chose to stay rather than flee.

• And that’s the clue – engaging with God’s community throughout our pain –is where we can find God in these brutal times. It is counter-intuitive – and we all have a need for solitude – but there is more than our feelings in the quest for God.

• As Lewis himself put it: Gradually, I began to feel that my in my own relationship with God the door was no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man in those moments who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear?
There is more to say – much, much more to say – but now just this: At the end of his life, CS Lewis pulled it all together saying, “When feeling disguises itself as thought, all nonsense is possible – and nowhere is it truer than in the problem of pain.”

Don't let even this throw you. Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father's home. If that weren't so, would I have told you that I'm on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I'm on my way to get your room ready, I'll come back and get you so you can live where I live.

We have been called to consider the Cross and its community as we go through the anguish of our suffering and pain. "I have learned,” said Philip Yancey, “that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse." Lord, may we have ears to hear.


Black Pete said…
A Grief Observed, to me, is a classic example of how suffering and pain can transform someone into spiritual maturity. I realize that that statement may have the effect of trivializing all Lewis's pre-Grief works, so I'll add quickly that with Grief, I finally Heard real, gutsy theology that has helped me and countless others.

You might also check the artist Tim Lowly, who confronts suffering in some very edgy, powerful ways.
RJ said…
I will, Peter. I agree re: Lewis: his own grief turned all his abstract and academic thinking upside down and inside out. And he became a better theologian for going through - and sharing - his agony. I will look for Tim Lowly.
Black Pete said…
Tim is a visual artist married to a United Methodist minister. They have a 20+-year-old daughter who is severely developmentally handicapped. Temma and his experiences as a missionary kid in Korea have informed much of his earlier and middle period art (he has since gone on to photography which lacks, for the most part IMO, the spirituality of the work I mention here).
RJ said…
I recall you speaking of him, Peter and when I checked out his work I see that I want to spend more time with it. Thank you.

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